This week, Ken Steele looks back at some of the biggest PR headaches afflicting Canadian colleges and universities in the past year, looking for common causes and some lessons we can learn about crisis communications.
Academia may well be the most challenging environment in which to manage messaging, with opinionated faculty, unrestrained students, and concerned parents, alumni, and taxpayers in the community.
Without a doubt, many PR headaches are caused by the students, intentionally or not. In previous episodes we’ve looked at sexist behavior in social media and during orientation, but Dalhousie’s School of Dentistry struggled with the biggest PR headache of 2015, when 13 male students posted sexist, misogynistic remarks to a supposedly private Facebook group. Protests, suspensions, a task force – in all, it cost the school about $650,000. And the underlying culture of sexism should have been addressed years earlier. (CBC’s “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” parody commercial)
Last year the University of Toronto had to ramp up campus security in the wake of a series of online threats posted by an anonymous user named “Kill Feminists.” The University of Ottawa coped with the fallout of the alleged sex assault by male hockey players, and a $6 million class action lawsuit. Several universities tore down posters for “White Students Unions.” 2 Montréal CÉGEPs had to cope with more than a dozen students leaving Canada to join Jihad.
But of course, students aren’t the only creative, intelligent and outspoken people on your campus. Last year we saw plenty of PR headaches caused by faculty members, too.
In the UK there was Nobel-prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt, and his ill-advised attempt at humour about the distraction of women scientists in the lab. (His botched apology made things far worse, and cost him his job.) In Ontario it was St Lawrence College business professor Rick Coupland, who was fired for violent homophobic comments last summer.
At Carleton University, biology professor Root Gorelick has caused a stir with his blog, commenting on his experiences as a member of the university board of governors. He sees himself as elected by faculty, with an obligation to his constituents, but the rest of the board and the administration are concerned about the ways in which his blogs do not always agree with the official minutes. He is accused of attacking the personal integrity of fellow board members. Carleton has put in place a new code of conduct for board members, making it clear that governors must not criticize decisions once they have been made. Several campus groups are concerned that Gorelick may be removed for his refusal to sign this “gag order.”
It seems pretty clear that when students or faculty behave badly, the institution needs to condemn their actions swiftly and unambiguously, suspend the perpetrators, start a thorough investigation, and possibly a restorative justice process. The institution may have to address the problem, through enhanced campus security, harassment policies, or codes of conduct. Sometimes swift action will lead to accusations of overreaction, such as at Ottawa and Dalhousie, where potentially innocent students are considered guilty by association. But these responses seemed to be the most popular approach in 2015.
Next time we’ll look at some of the most serious higher ed headaches of all. And as the metaphor might suggest, they often start at the top, with presidents and board chairs.
Meanwhile you might like to check out our review of the biggest higher ed headaches of 2014
Ken Steele is available to facilitate workshops or present at conferences and on campuses about PR headaches and how to manage media relations in a crisis. More information
#ICYMI, check out ASAP Science’s a capella parody of Taylor Swift’s hit song, which they called “Science Style”
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